A Family Affair: A Glimpse Into Life With a Family of New York Actors

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18 Dec 2012

Timothy Shew
Timothy Shew

A family of working theatre actors — Timothy Shew, Jane Brockman and Jonathan Shew — speaks with Playbill.com about what daily life is like inside their own showbiz troupe. 

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The Shew family has a lot to be thankful for this holiday season. For starters, as a clan of actors, they're all working. More important, perhaps, they've got each other for mutual support — to weather the uncertainties of the business and to celebrate its successes. As Stephen Sondheim's lyric for the fabled theatrical troupe of Gypsy goes: "No fits, no fights, no feuds and no egos, Amigos, together!" Husband and wife Timothy Shew and Jane Brockman, and their son, Jonathan Shew, give Playbill.com an insider look at life inside the home of a working New York theatre family.

"Every once in a while I'll be talking about my family and someone will say, "You're all in the business?," Brockman says, laughing. "It does tend to be a bit of a dramatic household."

When they're not working out of town, on any given day someone at home is playing the piano, dashing out for an audition, or rehearsing sides in the living room of their apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side. "It's exciting, and the business is so up and down, so we're all rooting for the other," says Tim. "My friends come over and they don't live in this world," Jonathan adds. "They think it's cool to see how it works. It's not like my dad leaves at nine in the morning and he's back by five."

"We bounce things off each other," he continues. "If my dad needs help with the music, I play piano for him, or if I need help with songs, he can help me with acting. And Jane, as well, she's so great with all of it, especially going through scenes. We have a nice little trio going on."

The family's homework has paid off, with everyone treading the boards this year. Tim is currently appearing as one of the aristocrats in the Broadway revival of Evita, his tenth Broadway show, while Brockman is on the road in the national tour of Wicked, covering the role of Madame Morrible. Jonathan, who just turned 25, is set to appear as Gabe in the second leg of a co-production of the musical Next to Normal, which recently concluded a run at the Arizona Theatre Company and is gearing up for an engagement at the San Jose Repertory Theatre in early 2013.

"We are so blessed. It doesn't always happen like this. We're really lucky to be working, all three of us at the same time," Jane says. The norm for any member of the family is working regionally five or six months out of the year, with one of them holding down the fort in New York City.

Jonathan recalls, "I grew up in that environment. My dad having to be away for work became part of my life. It was never an issue." Tim, who raised Jonathan as a single parent for the first part of his life, was fortunate to have steady work on Broadway when Jonathan was small. This meant that a five-year-old Jonathan was spending time backstage at the Martin Beck Theatre while his dad was playing Rusty Charlie in the Tony Award-winning 1992 revival of Guys and Dolls.

"The key was the bicycle," Tim says with a laugh. "It allowed me to go and do the matinee, then hop on the bike, get back to our apartment shortly after he got off the school bus so I could feed him, and do homework with him. Then, if there was no babysitter, he'd be coming along to the theatre with me."

"I was kind of a backstage baby," Jonathan recalls. "I used to sit off stage right, by the guy who does the curtain, and watch the show, singing along. I knew all the lines." It was during those backstage moments that Jonathan learned his first card trick from veteran actor Ernie Sabella, or a few years later, hung out with a pre-Tony Award winner Sutton Foster, who was a swing in The Scarlet Pimpernel, Tim's fifth Broadway show.

Timothy Shew as Jean Valjean

Tim's stage career also provided a once-in-a-lifetime experience for father and son. Tim, who was the youngest actor to ever play Jean Valjean in the Broadway production of Les Miserables in 1988, was asked to star in the 10th anniversary Australian staging of the hit musical in 1997. He has returned to the role several times since.

"Jonathan did all of sixth grade in Australia," Tim explains. "I took him with me for almost a year. I was there alone. Of course I surrounded myself with a lot of support and help. That's a very demanding role, in addition to the demands of raising a child! I look back and I wonder, 'How on earth did that happen?'"

In the years that followed, both Jane and Tim would take jobs that meant one parent was able to be home with a school-aged Jonathan. Jane says, "I was really fortunate in the beginning stages of raising Jonathan that I was doing A Christmas Carol [at the Theatre at Madison Square Garden] during the holidays. Then, May through July, I might be out of town, but Tim would have a gig in New York. Or if he'd have a better gig, then I'd stay in New York with Jonathan. It's those kind of choices you have to make as an actor and a parent, and it all works out."

Despite being immersed in theatre for the entirety of his life, Jonathan's early focus was on music. "Most families tell their kids, 'You have to practice your piano for 30 minutes before you can go play,'" Jane remembers. "We'd have to say, 'OK, you have to do 30 minutes of homework and then you'll get to play the piano.'"

But, as fate would have it, a music-minded Jonathan landed the plum role of Tony in the LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts' production of West Side Story. It was a game changer.

Jonathan Shew

"I said, 'Run — don't walk — away from this thing!,'" Tim says with a laugh, recalling Jonathan's announcement that he wanted to pursue acting. "He probably gets more advice from us than he cares to hear," adds Jane. "That's what happens when we all live together."

Passion for their work and family is what drives the trio. After an Off-Broadway run in Voca People, Jonathan is relishing the high-tenor role of Gabe in Next to Normal, a show he fell in love with when he first saw the Broadway production.

"This show, for me, is in the top five shows I've ever seen," he beams. "I'm really experiencing what I love about being an actor. The rush you get when you go on stage. It's not a job being on stage with great actors. My interaction with them becomes so real, and that is now what I am finding to be such a draw. You escape who you are and create this whole new person on stage and connect. Then the response you get from doing that is so cool."

For Jane, who understudied and performed the role of Margaret in the first national tour of The Light in the Piazza, that passion continues to evolve.

"When you're younger, the fire is to be in a certain show, or you see a show and think, 'Oh, I've got to play that part!,'" she says. "You have this desire to get to be on stage and do what you love. There is still a big part of that there for me, but now I also have an additional set of priorities — what we might need for a family. Wicked is great, because it's not just a good job, it's such a fun show to do. It's a luxury to be in a hit."

Jane Brockman

Both Tim and Jane are also reinvigorated by seeing Jonathan on stage. "It's so exciting, and I know those feelings, and the adrenaline rush one gets," Tim says. Jane adds, "When you see your kid do it, you say, 'Oh, I remember that.' It helps you to keep that going and reconnect."

Tim elaborates: "When you do a special piece like Next to Normal and you get to play Gabe, or you do Les Miz and you get to play Jean Valjean, or Margaret in The Light in the Piazza, oftentimes it's a while until you get to have that kind of experience. Those are pinnacle roles. Especially very early on in a career, when you're very impressionable, you'll always take that experience with you and want to have something that will equal it or surpass it."

So, what keeps Tim going? "In some ways, it's continuing that quest to find whatever will make it a mountaintop or pinnacle experience," he says. "Whether you're commercially successful, or you're pursuing artistic interests, or a career, just immerse yourself in it and to become part of that whole tapestry. I also love the community and the ensemble experience of theatre. All of us collectively coming together in one room — from the production team to the actors, the vehicles, the vessels out there on stage who get to tell the story."

That quest will continue for Tim, whose current show Evita will end its run in January, producers recently announced. But the ups and downs of an actor's life are typical for this family. "My dad always tells me, 'Don't let anyone take your joy from you,'" says Jonathan, who witnessed his parents' navigation of the ebbs and flows of a life on the stage.

"It's just part of keeping the fire lit. You have to keep going." Jane observes. "We're always seeing shows that we look at and go, 'Oh, Jonathan would be great in that part,' or we come to each other with suggestions."

All three are absolute in saying they wouldn't have selected another path. Storytelling, music and the shared joy of being on stage are in their blood. "In all of our passions and in all of our spirits, we have to explore what's going to ultimately propel us to be a giving, loving human being who's going to make an impact in this life. I celebrate anybody who finds whatever that passion is to go on and nurture it," says Tim.

Could the three be tempted to appear together on stage if the right project came along? "Oh, we should! We'll have to see how it all goes," Tim says. "Jonathan is on a real quest [with his own career]. Jane and I are both having phenomenal experiences with our shows." A father and son duo, perhaps? Tim is quick with a title, "A Pair of Shews!"